Author Mark Richards

Last month the island of Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria. With the US Government being heavily criticised for its response to the crisis, Elon Musk, entrepreneur and inventor, has stepped forward with an offer of help. Is it time for uncommon solutions to what seem to be increasingly common problems?

This year’s hurricane season in the Caribbean has been particularly bad. It has been one of the most active on record and for the first time since 2005, four hurricanes have made landfall in the USA.

What is ‘hurricane season?’

The Atlantic hurricane season officially begins on June 1st and ends on November 30th. This year the real problems started in mid-August when Hurricane Harvey hit Texas – the clean-up and repair bill there is now estimated at $180bn. Irma and Jose then did widespread and well-documented damage throughout the Caribbean: Hurricanes Katia and Lee which followed were relatively minor affairs (he wrote, from the safety of an office in the UK) and then on September 13th the National Hurricane Centre began monitoring a tropical wave – a large area of low pressure – which was south-west of Cape Verde, 570km off the west coast of Africa.

Within three days this had become Tropical Storm Maria: moving north-west and intensifying rapidly, Maria became a force 5 hurricane and on September 18th it struck the island of Dominica. Every structure on the island was damaged or destroyed. And then, two days later on September 20th Hurricane Maria – still at category 5 – hit Puerto Rico.

The island’s electricity grid was devastated, leaving all 3.4m residents without power. Buildings were destroyed, thousands of people were trapped by floodwater and 34 people died. Estimates of the cost of the damage vary: Moody’s Analytics put the total cost of Maria at $95bn: Ricardo Rossello, the Governor of Puerto Rico, believes the storm did $90bn of damage on the island alone.

The Rescue Mission

The US Government in general – and the President in particular – has been roundly criticised for its slow response to the crisis in Puerto Rico. Donald Trump seems to have been more concerned with a feud on Twitter than he has with organising any effective rescue and restoration measures.

…So enter the private sector, and in particular South African born entrepreneur, investor and inventor, Elon Musk.

Who is Elon Musk?

By Steve Jurvetson [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia CommonsBorn in 1971 Musk moved to Canada just before his 18th birthday and then, aged 24, went to Stanford University to do a PhD in Applied Physics and Material Sciences. In the best traditions of all good billionaires, he left after two days to begin his business career and made his first millions from Zip 2, a web software company.

He’s now the founder and CEO of SpaceX, the CEO of Tesla and has been involved in a host of other companies including PayPal. He has an estimated net worth of around $15bn and has relatively modest ambitions: he simply wants to change the world and the whole of humanity.

Arguably, he is the most visionary of the ‘new generation’ of super-rich billionaires that includes Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. Musk has stated that the goals of SpaceX and Tesla – along with another of his companies, SolarCity – are to reduce global warming through sustainable energy production and to reduce the “risk of human extinction” by making life ‘multiplanetary’ and establishing a colony on Mars. You might almost say he wants to boldly go where no man has gone before…

What is Elon Musk planning for Puerto Rico?

In simple terms, he’s planning to restore power to the island. He has already powered small islands using a solar grid. He now says that as the grid is scalable – and there is no limit to how much it can be scaled – it should be possible to restore power to the whole of Puerto Rico.

We have written previously about advances in battery technology, and this appears to be the key here. The problem over the last few years has not been generating power, it has been storing power. The sun might not be shining when thousands of people come home and want to cook dinner. But Tesla is now building the world’s biggest battery in South Australia which – when it is paired with a wind farm – will provide enough electricity to power 30,000 homes.

Puerto Rico certainly seems to like the idea, with Governor Ricardo Rossello saying he has had “a great initial conversation” with Musk about restoring the island’s power using solar energy technology. Electricity would be generated by solar power and stored using hundreds of batteries which Musk’s firm has sent to the island.

Puerto Rico’s gets 2,829 hours of sunshine a year – an average of nearly 7½ hours a day. So restoring the infrastructure using solar power is a practical solution. I am writing this in North Yorkshire where we get just over 1,500 hours. If a hurricane strikes, we could be in trouble…

Is direct action by entrepreneurs the future?

Governments are notoriously slow to do things. There is Congressional or Parliamentary approval to seek, public opinion to consider, the possible impact on the next election… And then there is the creaking bureaucracy of the state to move. Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, on the other hand, make decisions and act quickly. That is, after all, how they made their fortune in the first place.

You may have heard of the Giving Pledge – a campaign to encourage wealthy people to contribute the majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes. Formally announced by Bill Gates of Microsoft and legendary investor Warren Buffet in 2010, the Pledge now has 158 signatories, most of them billionaires. To date, the pledges total $365bn, with well-known names like Richard Branson and Tim Cook of Apple also on the list.

That means the Giving Pledge could restore Puerto Rico four times over: it has double the amount of money needed to put right the damage Hurricane Harvey did in Texas. And with many of the entrepreneurs also operating their own private initiatives – such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – are we moving towards a time when wealthy individuals are going to be more useful in a crisis than national governments?

It is not hard to see entrepreneurs like Elon Musk – committed to advances in solar power and space exploration – simply losing patience with the efforts of politicians and setting up their own rapid response task forces – a sort of International Rescue funded by the super-rich. Goodness me, where could that end